Fairbanks recycling business falls on hard times

Bernie Karl and his business K&K Recycling, have kept a variety of materials out of Fairbanks’ landfill since the 1980’s, but recent years’ weak markets and high costs have forced downsizing of the operation.

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Lack of a market for recycled materials and products has driven K&K to stop collecting paper and glass. The company, which several years ago halted plastic recycling, announced the decision last week. K&K President Bernie Karl said the company has been losing money on recycling.

”We’ve not made one dime recycling cardboard, paper, plastic, glass or wood,” Karl said. “We’ve spent several million dollars and we have not one thing to show for it except a lot of grief.”

Karl said K&K, which collects recyclables at local military bases and the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been losing twenty thousand dollars a month on paper and glass. He said metal, which K&K will continue to take, is the only profitable item, noting there’s no demand for K&K’s primary recycled product.

”We make three different kinds of fuel products out of cardboard, paper, plastic,” Karl said. “Haven’t been able to sell any of it.”

That’s in part due to to the failure of an experimental power plant K&K built with United Technologies to burn the paper fuel, and lack of interest from local coal fired plant operators, like the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

UAF Director of Environmental Health, Safety and Risk Management Frances Isgrigg said burning the recycled paper fuel raises permitting issues.

“We’re talking a long lead time to get anything up and running,” Isgrigg said. ”To permit that is gonna take a little bit of time and a little bit of energy. And there would need to be some source testing done to make sure we meet all of these strict requirements under hazordous air pollutants before we could even burn this type of fuel in the boiler.”

UAF will transition to a new coal fired power unit in two years, and University Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Scott Bell said burning the recycled paper pellet fuel requires equipment that not in the budget.

”The new boilers, we ran some cost overruns, and solved that by cutting about $40 million out of the project,” Bell said. “And part of what we cut was material handling for the biomass. But if we could come up with a long-term contract, for biomass, then part of that could cover the cost of installing the material handling equipment for pellets.”

Bell said the university is focused on bringing the new plant on line with coal before looking at alternative fuels.

”But, we’ve certainly left the door open with K&K to discuss that as a possibility, their pellets as a possibility,” Bell said.

Bell said burn and emission testing needs to be done on the recycled paper fuel before any supply contract is considered. K&K’s Karl said he does not have support from his employee owned company to pay for the research, but is hoping to find a private partner, emphasizing too much has gone into the project to give up.

”Our equipment’s not going anywhere,” Karl said. We have $4 million invested just in pelletizing equipment. We went out and bought a brand new briquetter. I’m gonna find a market for them eventually.”

Karl sid there’s also potential to produce building bricks from recycled paper and plastic, and that he plans to put up some structures with them next year.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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